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Best Foote Forward

Eighty-six-year-old Horton Foote -- who highlights this weekend's Words and Music Festival -- has spent his career writing scripts that make winners out of his characters.

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He's won a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy, two Oscars and, in 2000, the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Award. But from the seemingly endless list of accomplishments in his seemingly endless career, one of the most intriguing achievements of Horton Foote's writing career is his Midas touch for actors. For it was Foote who made Oscar winners out of those who'd always been Academy Award bridesmaids.

Gregory Peck won his first Oscar for his now-iconic performance in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, after being nominated four times previously. Robert Duvall, who'd made his film debut as Boo Radley in Mockingbird, finally brought home an Oscar 21 years later for his brilliant turn as a down-and-out country singer in Tender Mercies. The two films earned Foote his two Oscars, for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, respectively.

Then came The Trip to Bountiful two years later, Foote's adaptation of his own stageplay that had been broadcast on TV in 1953. The film earned Geraldine Page -- a star of stage and screen -- her first Oscar after a whopping seven previous nominations. Foote's script earned an Oscar nomination.

It's no coincidence that Foote's scripts have resulted in Oscar gold for these actors; all three characters are filled with a certain dignity and humanity that make them utterly compelling to watch. Foote's subtle prose gives the actors enough space to explore their characters' emotional cores. "I don't consciously choose characters filled with humanity," says the 86-year-old Foote, who will speak at this weekend's Words and Music -- A Literary Feast in New Orleans (also known as the Faulkner Festival). "You don't say, 'I'm going to write about a noble man.' You have to find the actions that lead you to that conclusion, and that's a search.

"There's a scene in Tender Mercies where Bob's character and [Tess Harper] are working in the garden and he says, 'I don't trust happiness. I never did, I never will.' He did one take. And that's the one time where Bob cries. You can't put that on paper. That's why all these things are collaborative. That's why certain actors are good for my work, is because they trust it. They don't try to jazz it up."

Indeed, actors have long respected the elegant simplicity of Foote's words, whether they're his own or from another writer's original text. Crafting that simplicity has been a lifelong endeavor, but it kicked into high gear with his adaptation of Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee in 1960. As a native of Wharton, Texas -- the inspiration for many of his writings -- Foote felt a connection to the small Alabama town of Maycomb that served as the setting for the adventures of Scout, Jem and their father, Atticus Finch.

But still, Foote could feel the pressure of converting not only a novel that had just won the Pulitzer Prize, but also one that took risks in its ennobling of a white lawyer fighting racial injustice in the Deep South. Then, as Foote was searching for his theme, two things happened.

"There was a wonderful review by R.P. Blackmur, and he compared Scout's journey to Huckleberry Finn in the wilderness," says Foote. "I thought that was a very interesting parallel, and that opened some doors for me."

Still, Foote was messing with a novel that was destined to become a classic -- and with someone else's work. Where did he fit into all this?

"You're getting into someone else's psyche and emotional territory," says Foote, who would later adapt two works by William Faulkner, Tomorrow and The Old Man. "The movie's producer, Alan J. Pakula ... said, 'You know the novel takes place in three seasons. Wouldn't it be interesting to put everything into one year?' It gave me a kind of license to rethink the structure of the book."

While Mockingbird was Foote's second screenplay, he'd already made a name for himself in the 1950s writing scripts for two of the most popular shows of the day: Studio One and The Philco Television Playhouse. So Foote was already well on his way to a burgeoning career as a writer for TV and the stage. It is a career that hasn't slowed down even though he's picked up just about every honor a man of letters can get.

Foote's presence at the Faulkner Festival comes at an exciting time for fans of New Orleans literature and movies; one of the most famous of all New Orleans-based novels, A Confederacy of Dunces, is finally being made into a film. Former Baton Rougean Steven Soderbergh will direct from an adaptation he co-authored with Scott Kramer.

When asked what advice he'd give a writer taking on another Pulitzer Prize winner, Foote was blunt: "He simply cannot let the legacy of the book ride on his shoulder. He has to find that moment -- and it's not an easy moment to find -- to take it over and say, 'Get the hell out of the way.' And just trust his sensibility."


Visit www.wordsandmusic.org for other highlights of Words and Music — A Literary Feast in New Orleans.
'You're getting into someone else's psyche and emotional territory,' writer Horton Foote says of adapting another writer's work.
  • 'You're getting into someone else's psyche and emotional territory,' writer Horton Foote says of adapting another writer's work.

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